The Fabulous Bones of Diogenes the Cynic

by David A. Watson

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Diogenes Kinecos lived in a barrel that he had found in the refuse heap. This he had situated beside the steps which led down into the wide palisade of the Craneum in Corinth. When the traders would tramp down to their stalls they had to pass by Diogenes. This caused them no small discomfort, for Diogenes lived, naked and filthy, with no possessions save for a bowl, a cup, his barrel, and a lantern and when the merchants would pass by his makeshift home he would block their path, shove his lantern into their faces, and stare into their eyes, searching, so he said, for just one honest man in the multitude. But in no man’s eyes did Diogenes Kinecos find the faintest hint of sincerity. Day after day the crowd would assemble around his meager home, waiting expectantly for a look at the famous mad man; and day after day Diogenes would emerge, glowering, from his barrel and preach to them. He knew only one text, and it was upon this that he performed his exegesis:

“The life of man is miserable by custom,” Diogenes said to the people, “for custom breeds misery. What man is a man who heels to any command born not of his own nature? A dog may do so much, and more. Custom outfits comfort, and so you go about burdened as the ass beneath the weight of those things which benefit no one. I wish nothing more than to live as best I can and when I die cast me outside the walls to feast the beasts and the birds.”

“You will not mind,” a woman in the crowd called out, “being so consumed?”

“Not if I am possessed of a staff,” said Diogenes, “that I may defend myself.”

“But how will you wield the staff,” a wise man asked, “for in death you will have neither sensation nor awareness?”

“Then what care will I have,” Diogenes replied, “and what need of the staff without the care?”

When he said this the people knew that he was wise, but they did nothing to mend their ways. And at night, alone in his barrel, Diogenes wept for the people. His heart burned with pity and joy.

One day, walking by the river, Diogenes saw a child kneel on the bank and, with his cupped hands, lift water to his thirsty mouth. This the child did again and again until his thirst was quenched. “Woe, woe, woe,” Diogenes said to himself, “I am vain beyond the festal pomp of kings.” Then, with this pronouncement of doom upon himself, Diogenes cast aside his cup and bowl, saying, “When the gods have given man two hands what needs him a bowl or cup?” Without even these humble implements Diogenes felt that his riches had increased beyond measure. Perhaps he was right, for, at about this same time, the people of Corinth began to say that a heavenly glow appeared about Diogenes’ head.

“He has no need of his lantern,” the people said, “for the light that shines from him is bright enough to light his path, such a man will never stumble in the darkness. If we but followed his path, we would be blessed.” Yet none of them followed in the ways of Diogenes for they felt the pull of complacency and, because they had no faith in the coming of the light, they feared the darkness and the cold.

So when Diogenes heard what it was that the people said he wept and cried out, “Woe, woe, woe unto them, those mongrel dogs, for they have made a hollow god of Diogenes. Diogenes has no need of men. Let each man need nothing but that which he himself may provide. Their wisdom is the wisdom of making the True false, and the False true. They are dishonest men.”

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In the north, in the savage lands, there rose up a king. His name was Alexandros, called the Megas Basileus, for in all that he did he met with success. He marched among the states of Greece, and the kings and senators of those states paid homage to him, and his wealth increased beyond measure. When his army came to Corinth, where Diogenes Kinecos lived in his barrel, word came to Alexandros, in his camp, about a mad philosopher who longed to find an honest man. Because this was the same Alexandros who had taken it upon himself to lay his blade to the Gordian knot, which, in itself, is sufficient testament to his dauntless spirit, and because he had heard that all the men and women of Corinth had been examined by this Diogenes and that each had been found wanting, Alexandros resolved that his first order of business in that town would be to seek out this mad man and submit his austere authority to truth’s penetrating gaze. When he came to Diogenes’ barrel Alexandros rapped on the wood with the hilt of his sword.

What happened next was witnessed by several and stands as part of the historical record:

Diogenes pulled back the small scrap of ragged cloth that served as his door and crawled out into the street, dragging his lantern behind him. He got to his feet and glanced around him, at the cadre of armed men and at their leader, splendid in the polished bronze of his armor and brilliant foliage of his plume. Without a word he raised his lantern to eye level and held it in Alexandros’ face, his brow furrowed in intense scrutiny. All present waited with baited breath, wondering what judgment this mad sage would pronounce.

“No,” Diogenes said at last, “no, it is not you that I seek. I had thought that it must be you, but you are just like the rest.”

With that Diogenes turned, crouched, and reentered his barrel. Alexandros and his retainers stood for a moment, as if frozen. Those who had followed Alexandros and his body guard, out of curiosity or reverence, whispered to one another, “Must the king not strike down the dog? Surely this is the death of Diogenes.” But after standing a moment in thought Alexandros turned away and, with his retinue following at his heels, walked back along the street in the direction from which he had come. He did not speak, and none of those who were with him dared to question him. At long last, having passed a great distance from the place where Diogenes lived, a smile broke out on Alexandros’ face. Turning to one of his companions he said, in a voice that was loud enough for all to hear; “Were I not Alexandros,” said the king, who in a few short years would hold in his sway the furthest reaches of the known world and would, upon his death, be venerated as a god, “I should wish to be Diogenes.” All of this has been recorded and is well known to those who study such things.

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But that is not the whole story. What happened after that escaped the record, and has, these many years, been known to none but the two men immediately involved. What happened was this:

When night fell, and sleep lay heavy on the city of Corinth and the camp of Alexandros’ army, the king crept from the palatial tent where he slept and made his way, his path lit only by a small dark lantern, to the place where Diogenes’ barrel sat.

“Teacher,” the king whispered, “teacher, come out. I would speak with you.”

Diogenes poked his head out from behind his curtain. When he saw that it was Alexandros he crawled out into the street and got to his feet. Without a word the king took Diogenes by the arm and the two men walked along a narrow street that led towards the city gate. The sky was clear and starlit and the moon, a sliver of light, was already beginning to sink. The street they walked along was quiet and clear, somewhere a dog barked, and if the two men had strained their ears they may have heard the faint wallowing sound of an army’s camp coming from beyond the city’s northern wall, for even in their rest soldiers are not silent men. Neither the king nor the philosopher spoke. Alexandros because he knew no words that matched the anxiety in his heart, Diogenes because he knew precisely what it was that the king wanted from him. They came to the western gate, called the Beautiful Gate, for it was gilded in good Corinthian bronze, an alloy of copper and electrum, and seemed to shine with a radiance all of its own. There was no posted guard, for the city was at peace, and so they stepped out through the gate into a meadow that ran up to the wall and set off down the well worn shepherd’s path that led towards the sea.

The ground began to slope up gently beneath their feet and they climbed wordlessly, until they crested the rise. In the distance they caught sight of the sea, which shone in shattered reflection of the moon and stars. An owl called. The waves crashed up on the strand, but the philosopher and the king were too far from the shore to hear. Alexandros sat in the grass and motioned for Diogenes to do the same. They sat and looked out towards the sea. Finally Diogenes spoke.

“There was once a king,” Diogenes said, “and he had a son, not unlike you. When this king died his son mourned him fiercely. So, like a good son should, he built for his father a crypt of the best Etruscan marble, and had his epitaph stamped, in golden letters, upon the door of the vault, and set up censors of incense that burned in perpetuity. But, after many years, grave robbers came under the cover of night and stole the bones of the old king, replacing them with the bones of a beggar. They boasted of their theft, and word of their boasting reached the old king’s son, the prince. He was enraged and ordered that the grave robbers be brought before him, with the bones they had taken from the tomb. But the grave robbers were clever, and returned to the grave they had robbed and took the bones of the beggar, which they had placed inside. These, along with the bones of the old king, they brought with them when they were hauled to the court. When it was announced that they would face death for desecration of a king’s tomb, the leader of the grave robbers spoke. ‘We will agree,’ he said, ‘that this sentence is just if the prince can tell us which of these sets of bones are the bones of the old king and which of them are the bones of the beggar.’ But the prince could not tell the bones apart. For the bones were, in every way, identical. So he turned the grave robbers loose, for he was a just man. And when he had done so the prince retired to a solitary spot and watered the memory of his father with his tears.”

“Why do you tell me this?” Alexandros asked.

“You are a great king,” Diogenes said, “The kings and princes of the world cower in fear of your shadow. But your present greatness cannot mask your future failure.”

“What failure is this?”

“You will one day die. This is the failure of all men,” Diogenes said, “we may gather the world unto ourselves, but we have no power to keep it. We are a hunger which can never be satisfied.”

“When I was a young man,” Diogenes continued, “I went to the oracle. I felt myself primed with purpose, like an arrow drawn out on a quivering string, but had no direction, no aim.”

“What did you ask?” Alexandros asked.

“How to find the path of wisdom,” Diogenes said. “There was a tremor and the cracks in the cave opened and the mist rose and the oracle began to shake and speak. I did not know, at first, what she meant, but now I believe that I understand.”

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It was the bite of a dog that killed Diogenes Kinecos. Six days he railed and foamed and the citizens of the city chained him to a post in the agora and watched as he tore at his flesh with his nails and with his teeth so that his blood flowed. Children pelted him with rotten fruit and clods of horse dung that stuck in his hair, beard, and stained his chest. On the seventh day he rested. The citizens took his body and hurled it out into the rubbish heap, the same rubbish heap where Diogenes had found his barrel so many years before. He was given no staff to defend himself from the ravages of wild dogs, but he lay undisturbed, for no wild creature will feed on the dead flesh of a rabid man. But that also is not the end of the story.

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On the day after the death of Diogenes, the twenty eighth day of the month of Daesius, Alexandros, the Megas Basileus, died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. His body was placed inside of a gilded sarcophagus, which was, in turn, placed inside a large coffin of solid gold. The seer Aristander foretold that the land in which the bones of Alexandros came to their final rest would remain happy and unconquered forever, and among the factions that sprang up to seize upon the vacated power for the dead king there was fierce fighting over the proprietorship of the bones. Blood was shed; the coffin and sarcophagus were stripped of their gold in order to pay for swords, shields, and men. In the end the bones of Alexandros were forgotten and became dust which mingled with the sands of the desert, which, as everyone knows, are themselves the desiccated remains of the bones of men who were, in their own time, greater than Alexandros and who have been lost to the inexorable erasure of deep history. This was as Diogenes Kinecos had predicted.

But even as the bones of Alexandros faded, the bones of Diogenes remained intact. There in the rubbish heap, covered over with refuse, sunk deep into the ground, the bones of Diogenes began to glow. Today, if one visits the spot, which has long since been covered over by a suburb of the bustling and ever expanding hive of Corinth, and walks on an exceptionally dark night across the place where Diogenes’ bones still rest, the faint glow of the bones can be seen emanating up from a deep running crack in the ground. Of course, only those with exceptionally keen eyes and a focused mind could ever hope to notice.

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David A. Watson teaches at Michigan State University, and lives in a small house by a lake with his wife.

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